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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Daryl Adair, Associate Professor of Sport Management, University of Technology Sydney

Saturday’s premiership tussle between Collingwood and Brisbane features the two top-ranked teams from 2023. Hopefully, unlike last year’s final, it will be a gripping match. The 2023 finals series has so far featured edge-of-the-seat contests, as reflected in media audiences: some 13.3 million eyeballs tuning in, at an average of 1.66 million per game.

Perhaps most importantly, after lean years during COVID, there has also been bountiful spectator interest this season. The finals matches have attracted an average of 70,595 fans, with an expected 100,000 set to attend on Saturday.

All this follows a bumper season for the AFL, with 36,110 attendees per game, the league’s highest average since 2010.

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Rivals with September history

The premiership contestants, Brisbane and Collingwood, are meeting for the third time since the AFL was formulated as a national competition in 1990. No other two clubs have faced each other more in an AFL grand final.

The Magpies lost to the Lions in 2002 and 2003, so they will be especially keen to soar against their Queensland rivals. Collingwood boasts 15 VFA/VFL/AFL titles since its inception in 1892, but only two have come in the past 65 years (1990 and 2010).

Despite a lack of recent success, the black and white Magpie “army” is the biggest fan base for a club in any Australian sport, with an average of 63,723 fans attending home matches during the season and the two finals matches averaging 95,151 fans.

As with last week’s preliminary final, Collingwood will have the advantage of playing in Melbourne against an interstate rival. This means greater familiarity with the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and, without a doubt, a much larger fan base inside the stadium.

Brisbane, meanwhile, has not featured in a grand final for nearly 20 years. The Lions pulled off an incredible three premierships in a row from 2001-3, then fell to Port Adelaide in the 2004 final.

The Lions are reborn

Those three flags marked a rise from ignominy for a club that began in 1987 as the Brisbane Bears but played at Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast. The Bears finished regularly near the bottom of the ladder in these foundational years, capturing the wooden spoon in 1990 and 1991. Little wonder they averaged a modest 10,000 spectators per game.

In 1996, the Brisbane Bears were reinvented as the Brisbane Lions following an AFL-managed merger with the financially distraught Fitzroy Lions. For Fitzroy players and fans, the amalgamation with Brisbane was effectively a takeover. A move from the Gold Coast’s Carrara Stadium to Brisbane’s Gabba embedded the newly branded Lions in Queensland’s capital. Significant crowds soon followed, buttressed by vastly improved on-field success.

That said, after the heady three-peat of 2000-3, the Lions endured some very lean years, making the finals only once between 2005 and 2018.

Since 2019, the club has been part of September action again, but until this year, not on grand final day.

In 2020, Brisbane superstar Lachie Neale remarked that he “would gladly swap his Brownlow Medal for a premiership”. That year, the Lions were eliminated in the preliminary final, so it was a metaphorical opportunity lost.

This week, Neale claimed his second Brownlow Medal. And in keeping with his team-first approach, again said he would “gladly swap both of his Brownlow triumphs for premiership glory at the MCG this weekend”.

If only it were that easy. Since 1993, only six players have achieved the Brownlow/premiership double.

Collingwood’s transformation

A common refrain among footy fans is that those who don’t support Collingwood inevitably “hate” them. This speaks largely to football rivalries, particularly Collingwood’s traditional foes like Carlton and Essendon. But sport is not simply about winning or losing; it’s also about how you play the game – both on and off the field.

In that respect, Collingwood is undergoing a renaissance that could not have been imagined just two years ago. Under fire from First Nations and other Black players, who claimed they experienced racism throughout their careers with the club, Collingwood was dragged into supporting an independent investigation of its culture. This led to the 2021 release of the “Do Better” report, which found evidence of systemic racism at the club.

Soon after, the club president, Eddie McGuire, stepped down – though, to critics, this ought to have happened years ago after several unseemly incidents. While governance has remained challenging at Collingwood, and not all former players are satisfied with how the club handled the racism allegations, the public relations disasters under McGuire have at least disappeared.

The other key change at Collingwood was a new coach. Club legend Nathan Buckley exited after ten years at the helm, having made the finals five times. He quit midway through the 2021 season after which the Magpies stumbled to near the bottom of the ladder.

Enter the former Brisbane player Craig McRae in 2022. Nicknamed “Fly”, McRae brought a brazen attacking game style to Collingwood, with stunning results. Midway through the 2022 season, the longtime AFL reporter Damien Barrett reckoned that McRae had made the “hated” Magpies “likeable again” and provided compelling viewing.

The Pies eventually lost by a single point to the Swans in the 2022 preliminary final, but McRae was recognised as the AFL coach of the year.

Fast forward to 2023 and the “love affair” with Collingwood’s adventurous playing style has continued. The journalist John Stensholt reported that, contrary to conventional wisdom, this Magpies team is no longer so polarising.

It is now led by a “fly” with a positive psychology mindset, a captain (Darcy Moore) who speaks with humility and grace, and father-son greats in Josh and Nick Daicos. Even Jordan De Goey, a serial off-field offender in previous years, has seemingly discovered inner peace after working with a sports psychologist.

A premiership would cap a remarkable revival story for either club – and with another enormous grand final crowd, it will mark a continuing resurgence for the league itself from the lows of the pandemic years.

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The Conversation

Daryl Adair does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Lions to roar or Magpies to soar? It’s a remarkable revival story either way on grand final day –